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How to taste cheese like an expert: Get a journal

Keep a cheese scorecard.

Denis Balibouse/REUTERS/Denis Balibouse/REUTERS

I have a cheese journal. And it's private. That might seem odd, considering many of my notes are published in this column. But by then they've been refined.

I've looked back on my first tasting of a cheese and compared it with later tastings. I've thought about how I can best convey my impressions to someone reading about the cheese, and not tasting it with me. I don't need to share scribbles like "Good with cherry pie?" with the outside world. That was a comment I wrote next to Bleu de la Moutonnière on first taste (and though I am now sharing, yes, I'm slightly embarrassed).

But that note meant something - it was a first impression. The blue cheese was creamy and had a saltiness that would be nice with something tart and sweet. For me, in that moment, cherry pie popped to mind. And that's the key: When keeping track of cheese tastings, the descriptors must mean something to you. They must spark recognition when you read a write-up six months later.

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Keeping a cheese journal has multiple functions - most obviously, you can keep track of cheeses you like. You'll notice over time that the same cheeses may taste different. Maybe you loved the nine-month Louis D'Or but were lukewarm about the 18-month version. Or perhaps you just want to keep track of great cheese plates you've had while dining out.

I spoke about "cheese language" with Allison Spurrell, co-owner of Les Amis du Fromage in Vancouver and a member of the Confrérie des Chevaliers du Taste Fromages de France (founded in 1954, its role is to preserve fine-cheese traditions).

"I think that the language of cheese can be complicated - there's the technical language (cheese making) and the tasting language," she says. "I don't know that there's always a consensus in the industry. I can tell a customer that a cheese is grassy, thinking that that sounds delicious, and they sometimes just say, 'No thanks.' "

Ms. Spurrell tells me that many people come into Les Amis scrolling through cheese notes on their smart phones. She recommends at least writing down general flavours you like. "That way, the next time you come in you can experiment and go one step beyond the last cheese you tried, or you might not like the washed rind style of a cheese but you liked the vegetal notes. I can help you find something like that in another style. And sometimes keeping track of what you don't like is more telling than what you do."

Anne-Marie Shubin, a cheese expert and culinary educator, draws an important distinction between two kinds of tastings: One is for pure enjoyment, a visceral experience that might even touch your soul. The other is a dissection - you sit down and make specific notes. No crackers, no bread, just the naked cheese.

The most basic mistake people make, says Ms. Shubin, "is not giving the cheese enough time on the palate. Don't swallow until the cheese has reached body temperature, and let it linger on your palate. You need to let the cheese go through all its phases of flavour."

In essence, suck on the cheese as if it were a piece of toffee and concentrate on the texture and flavours as they develop, change and linger.

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"Try to explain what comes to mind - words that will help you with pairings or accompaniments rather than just writing 'nice' or 'I like it!" Ms. Shubin says.

At cheese competitions, judges use a scoring system that evaluates criteria such as appearance, aroma, texture and taste. This is a great way to break down your own notes.

"A scoring system is the simplest way to keep track of your cheese," Ms. Shubin says. It's faster than detailed notes, especially when you're in line at the cheese store. As a minimum, give an overall rating and write down the style of cheese (firm, washed rind, blue). Even these quick notes make a great resource for putting together a cheeseboard.

Most importantly, trust your senses. Allow yourself to write down the first word that comes to mind. An earthy aroma can be damp leaves, wet stones or "the garden we had as a kid." And if the cheese has taken you to that garden, it has probably touched your soul. But that's between you and your cheese journal.

Sue Riedl blogs about cheese and other edibles at

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